Jake Gyllenhaal and director Denis Villeneuve have recently set about turning their blossoming cinematic partnership into the kind of professional pairing that cranks out clever, creepy feature films that stick with their audiences long after they end. In short, these two like to make skin-crawling films that freak people out, and it turns out they’re pretty good at it.
Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal premiered both of their collaborations last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, though their bigger-budget (and bigger-named) ‘Prisoners’ hit theaters while the intriguing ‘Enemy’ bided its time before a more low-key release. While ‘Prisoners’ presented a terrifying premise that was still relatable – a pair of suburban couples are heartbroken when their young daughters go missing, and the fallout is very unexpected – ‘Enemy’ goes full throttle on a plot line that’s both bizarre and purposely hard to swallow.
Loosely based on Jose Saramago’s book ‘The Double,’ the Javier Gullon-penned screenplay centers on one man (Gyllenhaal) and the accidental discovery of his exact doppelganger (uh, Gyllenhaal again) living in his same city with a vastly different life. Adam is a sad sack of a history professor at a local Toronto college who is basically gagging for some kind of shake-up and change in his life, even if he’s not willing to dig for it himself, so it seems to be almost an act of providence that something too profoundly weird would befall him. Adam’s life is wholly unoriginal, and his regular days repeat in a fashion that almost approaches ‘Groundhog Day’ levels – same job, same lecture, same walk home, same outfit, same evening plans with his unsatisfied girlfriend (Melanie Laurent) – and he repeats them throughout the film’s first act.
It’s during that same first act that Villeneuve makes the film's aims plain, and before the big twist of ‘Enemy’ is revealed, the film is already an unnervingly unsettling experience, permeated by the sense that something (anything) is about to go very wrong at any minute. It doesn’t help that the city sprawl of Toronto looks foreboding and apocalyptic and (quite frankly) just plain ugly in every frame, or that Adam’s apartment is so oddly empty, or even that every scene is bathed in sickly yellows and grays, it’s all of it -- it all adds up to an overwhelmingly tense experience that pushes onward to a banger of a reveal.
All that drama and dread makes said reveal amusing really, with one Gyllenhaal hunched over a laptop screen in the middle of the night, searching for a face (his face) that he dreamed of mere minutes before on another Gyllenhaal on the screen. Adam, not a movie guy, recently picked up the film (a local one, naturally) on the recommendation of a colleague, and although his double escaped his notice on first watch, he apparently burrowed into his psyche, later showing up in his sleep. When Adam returns to the film to check, he’s there – his exact double, his doppelganger, a random dude playing at being a bellboy in a bad movie that has his face.
What follow is a quest for answers, with Adam going full gumshoe on the situation and ultimately tracking down Anthony, a sometime-actor with tastes that run toward the grotesque and disturbed. Adam may be kind of a weirdo geek, but Anthony is a real creep, though both seem to have major problems when it comes to bonding emotionally with the women in their lives. Those women, Laurent’s Mary and Sarah Gadon as Helen, Anthony’s pregnant and curious wife, ultimately become pawns in the game that Adam and Anthony are playing with each other, to very different effects.
Adam and Anthony are identical in every way, right down to a scar that crosses over their right side, but physical attributes aren’t the only thing that they have in common, and that scar becomes relatively benign by the end of the film. In fact, Villeneuve lays out enough clues that could effectively be used to argue any number of possibilities – is this some kind of hallucination? Are they the same person? Is any of this real? – without handholding his audience to an easily packaged understanding of the film.
As the fragile constructs of Adam’s -- or is it Anthony’s? -- brain start to break down, the film layers on the strangeness, and viewers with a phobia of spiders should stay far away, lest one of Villeneuve’s (imagined?) beasties pop up onscreen unexpectedly. ‘Enemy’ keeps its oddness going for its entire runtime and doesn’t attempt to close out in a tidy manner -- Saramago’s book also ends in a manner that comes with far more questions than actual answers, and although Villeneuve’s film gets points for its weirdness, the author does have the upper hand when it comes to an actually intriguing ending -- and it will surely leave audiences flummoxed, disturbed and extremely entertained.
‘Enemy’ is one of the weirdest – and best – films in which Jake Gyllenhaal has ever starred, and it will likely find its rightful place next to ‘Donnie Darko,’ its own twin, on the actor’s resume.
'Enemy' hits theaters this Friday, March 14.